Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Stop giving the “doomsayers” so much to write about

 (Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 29 December 2010)

There is something so vital about living a life of freedom that causes humans to be willing to readily lay down their lives to ensure liberty for their posterity. Wicked governments have – for thousands of years – tried to quash the liberty of the people, and for just as long there have been those who have fought with their dying breath to preserve it.

I watched closely to see the response of the people when Freddie Kissoon and Mark Benschop were arrested and held for days for a mere traffic violation. That major blunder by the powers-that-be did exactly what I thought it would do; it stirred the fire inside the people. Regardless of what they think of Kissoon and Benschop, people know a wrong when they see it.

I do not know where I heard this phrase, probably a movie, but it has stuck with me because it is how I truly feel about liberty. “If you kill me, a thousand more will rise to take my place!” I saw that very sentiment stirring inside the Guyanese people when Freddie and Mark were unjustly incarcerated. I saw people who would normally go about their lives without giving thought to the government and its actions, stirred to the point of being vocal.

This is heartening. It means that the fire that burns inside us all to preserve liberty and justice is still very much alive. ‘Tis true, the people seem more than content to allow Freddie and Mark to fight this battle alone most of the time, but it was more than obvious to me that when it seemed the freedom of these two men was in jeopardy, the people were ready to shake their apathy for the sake of preserving justice and liberty.

Personally speaking, I would fight with every ounce of strength against any power that would threaten my liberty. No government, no power, no man has the right to unjustly revoke a person’s liberty. The fact that this could be done as a political vendetta or at the mere whim of someone with power to make an example of those who take a stand for the good of the people – this is what causes those with an upright conscience to break their silence.

There is yet another case of unjust detainment. Well-known actor and comedian, Lyndon ‘Jumbie’ Jones, was detained in what is now being called a case of mistaken identity. What an intellectual insult. Do they really think anyone believes these lies? ‘Jumbie’ is on television several times a week – people know what he looks like. This is a case that could and should have been wrapped up in a matter of minutes. But he was held over the entire holiday weekend. This disgusts me.

I have generally kept quiet lately on matters concerning government indiscretions because Freddie pretty well has this area covered and I have other issues on which I want to write (domestic violence, women’s issues, etc). But when the liberty of others is on the line, I cannot help but take a firm stand against the injustice.

Lest we forget, Freddie is a journalist. If what has happened to Freddie in the last year had taken place in the U.S. to a journalist, there would be an uprising the likes of which this planet has never seen before. This would be the same across the entire world in regards to any democratic government.
Mark my words, unless the people stand up to the government when it jails Freddie and Mark for protesting a dumpsite that is an environmental disaster, the people will be the next ones jailed for murmuring dissent. This injustice from the powers-that-be cannot be tolerated. Apathy is not Guyana’s friend.

At the same time, I am most confident that the government is making a huge blunder for which it will pay dearly. It is making a martyr out of Freddie. The more they continue their attacks against him, the more the people run to his side in support. Again, it matters not what these people think of Freddie himself, it matters only that Freddie is able to freely function in his role as a journalist and a citizen. Freedom matters. Justice matters.

If Freddie disappears, there will be many, many more who will rise to take his place. This is what the government does not realise. The people understand there is a price that comes with freedom and are willing to pay that price – just like Freddie. In the musical version of Les Miserables, in the final speech Enjolras (a devout believer in democratic freedom) gives to the students before they make their last stand at the barricade and die, he said, “Let others rise to take our place, until the Earth is free!”

There seems to be a strong undercurrent of discontent lately from the ruling party’s constituents. Not all is well in paradise. This disgruntlement, combined with the government’s flagrant disregard for freedom and justice, could spell a major political shake-up in the coming months. There have been too many major mistakes lately – like arresting Freddie and Mark for protesting and holding them unjustly for days.

In all honesty, the fact that they were arrested seems like a knee-jerk, childish response by the government. A temper tantrum perhaps? It was certainly not a well thought-out plan for the betterment of the nation or a strategic public relations stunt for the party. The entire deed blew up in their face and it unleashed a stirring in the people to fight for freedom.

For those in the government who think they can smother freedom and justice, understand me now – you cannot. Instead, you bring your party in peril by being ignorant of human history. The people will fight for their freedom and for justice. My advice is that for the New Year, you should focus on the job you are supposed to be doing and stop giving the “doomsayers” so much to write about.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peace on earth and goodwill to Women

 (Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 25 December 2010)

What would the world be like today if it were three wise women who travelled with gifts to the see the king of the Jews in the Christmas story? What if the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night were women and they were the ones who got to hear the angels announce the birth? What if it were a little drummer girl who played for the baby Jesus? What if a woman ruled the Roman world instead of Caesar Augustus?

At Christmas, why does everyone only make gingerbread men? If it were Grandpa who got ran over by a reindeer, would the song still be so funny? Why not build a Frosty the snow-woman? What if it were daddy who the kids saw kissing Santa Claus? And speaking of Santa, imagine how much more fun Christmas would be for little girls if there were a female version of Santa, too.

The good news is that, although traditional thought does not recognise it, all of Santa’s reindeer – Rudolf, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen – are female. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “While both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid December. Female reindeer retain their antlers till after they give birth in the spring.” Therefore, according to every historical rendition depicting Santa’s reindeer, every single one of them, from Rudolf to Blitzen … had to be a female.

Finally! We get to hear about some females during the holiday season (although I think many would still assume Santa’s reindeer are males). I think you get my point, though. Women are left out of all the traditional stories surrounding this celebration time of the year. This is just one celebration connected to one religion in our very big world, but it is a good example of how women have long been omitted from most historical accounts and traditional folklore.

The sole woman in the biblical account of the Christmas story is Mary, the mother of the baby Jesus. I am pretty sure the only reason Mary was included is because a woman was needed to give birth. However, think of how much better the miracle would have been if a man had given birth instead of a virgin. Just saying.

Moreover, if a woman was queen of Judea, instead of Herod being the king, I would bet my bottom dollar there would have been no order to kill all the little boys who were two years and younger so no baby king could rise to take the throne. My reasoning on this matter is similar to the reason I believe that if a woman were president of the US when George Bush went to war, there would have been no war – women seem to value the life of children more.

Therefore, I have decided to write my own holiday story that is all about women. Now don’t be mad, guys! You have plenty of stories, songs and prose about you. It is time for the women have some fun this Christmas. When you are reading my poem, please think of the classic poem by Clemens Moore, “Twas the night before Christmas.”

Twas the week before the New Year and all through the nation
Women were contemplating and pondering their station
What one does with one’s life is, after all, a great matter
So, best friends were consulted and thus began the chatter

One bright Girlfriend made it clear, girl don’t you marry for money
Yep, said another, as we all know, easy come easy go, honey
You gotta make your own way and be your own lady
‘Cause what happens if Mr. Right turns out to be Mr. Shady?

Don’t chase rude boys, said Bestie, they are nothing but trouble
If you think they are cute, you’d best change your mind on the double
Girlfriend said, hey, don’t forget to get yourself an education
That’s right said Sis, we know life ain’t no free vacation

Headaches and heartaches can be avoided when a girl thinks right
Don’t ditch girlfriends for a passing guy, keep your girls tight
A question is posed, but what if I find a guy who seems to care
Great answer Sis, you found someone with whom life you can share

But, said Bestie, you don’t give up your life to please someone else
If he truly loves you for you, he will want you to be yourself
He won’t ask you to give up your family, your career or your friends
He would never scare you, beat you and leave you to mend

Girlfriend said, my Christmas wish is that in the New Year
No women are physically or mentally tormented and living in fear
All the girlfriends piped in, yep, that is my Christmas wish too
As they gazed at the fairy lights, the feeling of love was strong and true

In her red dress, Santa stopped by to see the girls and drop off their gifts
Sis picked up a snow globe of Frostie the snow-woman – it gave her a lift
As did the smell of baking gingerbread women that wafted through air
The girlfriends gave a group hug; grateful for the friendship they shared

These were three very wise women; of that there was no doubt
These ladies know just who they are and what life is all about
The table was set, the candles aglow, food aplenty with all the trimmings
The girls joined hands and declared, peace on earth and goodwill toward women.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ugly is as ugly does

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 22 December 2010)

While my oldest daughter, who is stunningly beautiful, was growing up, I always reminded her that no matter how beautiful she is on the outside, if she is ugly on the inside…then she is just plain ugly. Today she is a beautiful woman – on the outside and the inside. My hope is to convey this same message to the girls growing up today.

Young women growing up today spend so much time fretting about their hair, makeup, clothes, shoes, etc. They primp incessantly; yet I wonder if they spend any time at all grooming their manners, their kindness or their generosity. Being rude seems en vogue lately – and I think it is just ugly.

With rude role models in the media and in real life, it seems a natural evolution for young women to follow the examples set for them. I have seen some young women who are very beautiful on the outside, but their dominant behaviour is malicious and spiteful. It is a very ugly thing to watch.

Even worse, these women justify their mean and nasty actions by saying they are just “keeping it real.” Absolute nonsense! Disregard for the feelings of others is not keeping it real – it is keeping everything about one self-absorbed person. When that ugly girl needs to have others who are honestly real around for support, she will find herself all alone.

Let’s face it, ugly is as ugly does. Webster’s Dictionary defines ugly as “offensive or unpleasant to any sense.” I find mean, self-centred, obnoxious, malicious and spiteful girls to be very ugly. In fact, I do not waste my time around such young women or grown women. I have better things to do with my time than to squander it on people who do not give a second thought about hurting others.

On December 19, The Huffington Post published an article entitled, “Narcissism: The New Normal?” This piece talks about the fact that narcissism “has become so much a part of our culture, particularly our parenting, that narcissistic traits are considered normal — so much so that if we don’t have a reality show named after us, we use our own phones or video up-links to transmit our private lives to anyone from Alaska to Antarctica who will watch.”

As a society, are we raising our children – both boys and girls – to be narcissists? Are we actually training the next generation to be ugly? The laissez-faire attitude of adults toward ugly behaviour from young people is a perfect example that this is the case. Being rude and mean is not cute or cool – it is ugly. And no amount of physically attractive features can make a person who is ugly on the inside an appealing person to be around.

The aforementioned article continued, “People — particularly parents — often confuse true authority with meanness of spirit. They are not the same thing. In fact, a parent who has no authority, who cedes his position to his child, has done that child a great disservice. Authority is benevolent, even though it demands respect. It is loving, even though it will not accept bad behaviour. It is structured, which is not the same as strict and certainly does not mean fearsome…And, finally, benevolent authority is critical if we’re going to have anything but a generation of unabashedly self-centered, entitled children who believe the whole world revolves around their desires.”

How much time do young women today spend helping others? How much time do they spend with an elderly relative who cannot leave the house? How much volunteer time is committed to help orphans, the homeless or the poor? Is there any time for the disabled neighbour who needs groceries from the store? Are these activities even important anymore? Or do we only teach our young women to think about themselves all the time?

Raising young women to be grounded and well-rounded adults who give back to the community requires parents to teach them to realise the importance of their internal beauty. Regardless of the fact that society heedlessly rewards women for being beautiful on the outside (i.e. beauty pageants), the internal beauty of a woman is far more important to the woman herself – and to society as a whole.

A woman who is ugly on the inside will one day have a harsh awakening when she realises the world does not, in fact, revolve around her. She will have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships and she will feel lonely because her ugly ways have alienated even those who truly care about her.

In the community, the woman who is beautiful on the outside will get stares, catcalls and the attention of the males, but unless she contributes to the community with more than her physical appeal, what service does that woman provide for humanity? What good has she done to make the world a better place? What legacy of significance has she left for the next generation?

Women have so much more to offer the world than just external beauty. Women have brilliant minds, creative spirits, political prowess, spiritual intuition, business expertise and commanding leadership skills. These are the far more vital features for which women should be rewarded – not something as shallow and trivial as outward beauty.

A woman’s outward beauty is a biological endowment. The woman has no control over what society deems beautiful on the outside or whether she was born to be beautiful. However, the parents and the young woman craft the internal beauty. The older the girl gets, the more responsibility she assumes for her internal beauty. A woman who has moulded herself to be beautiful on the inside should garner far more admiration from society than one who happened to be born with outward beauty.

While the television, pop stars, magazines, commercials and billboards tell our daughters that outside beauty is important, we need to make sure they understand their internal beauty is even more important.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Maternal mortality is a human rights issue

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 19 December 2010)

For the brief few weeks I recently focused my column on addressing domestic violence, women have been dying in stunning numbers from something totally unrelated to domestic violence – they have been dying while giving birth. It seems that during the past few months, woman after woman has died in childbirth. This is yet one more demonstration of how little society values women’s lives.

According to the International Initiative on Maternal Mortality and Human Rights (IIMMHR), “Over 500,000 women die every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. These tragic and preventable deaths are the culmination of human rights violations against women and girls in many aspects of their lives and at all levels of health decision-making. Ending these human rights violations is essential for preventing maternal death.”

Regardless of the results of the probe launched by the government to look into these recent deaths, there is one question that plagues my mind. Why has it taken so long for any action to be taken at all? These maternal deaths are nothing new; I wrote a column on this very topic in April 2006 as it was a problem at that time, as well.

In that column I referred to the fact that my husband’s grandmother died in childbirth over 60 years ago…from the same type of neglect and mishandling. Again, one cannot help but question why. Why are so many women dying while giving birth or shortly thereafter?

When I recently posted yet another story about a maternal death on my Facebook page, one woman’s response was, “Unbelievable! Can we rule out some sort of deliberate activity??? This is highly unusual. It’s 2010 for goodness sakes!!!”

This feeling of utter exasperation is exactly how any woman feels concerning the high number of maternal deaths.

I have had women tell me that if men were the ones giving birth, this situation would not exist. It is difficult to fight with such logic when even finding a cure for balding hair seems to take medical preference over putting an end to maternal mortality. The situation in Guyana is nothing less than a travesty that only now – after several maternal deaths in a short amount of time – an investigation has been launched to answer our questions of why. This problem of preventable maternal deaths has been around for years and a probe conducted years ago could have saved the lives of so many women.

It is time for us to recognize preventable maternal mortality for the massive human rights problem that it is. IIMMHR states, “Failure to provide available, accessible, acceptable and quality health care, including emergency obstetric care, for women during pregnancy and childbirth is a violation of women’s rights to life, health, equality and non-discrimination.

Respect and protection of women’s rights to information and decision-making in reproductive health, to freedom from gender-based discrimination and violence, and to participation in planning and implementing health policies are critical for making pregnancy and delivery safer for women.”

The April 16, 2010 Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and human rights said, “According to WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank and other stakeholders, the majority of maternal deaths and disabilities could be prevented through access to sufficient care during pregnancy and delivery and effective interventions. This affirmation is supported by the observation that in some countries maternal mortality has been virtually eliminated. Only 15 per cent of pregnancies and childbirths need emergency obstetric care because of complications that are difficult to predict. WHO estimates that 88 to 98 per cent of maternal deaths are preventable.”

I would be numbered in that small percentage who required medical intervention while having my first child. The umbilical cord was wrapped around my daughter’s neck and even after ten hours of induced labour, I would not dilate. The child was safely delivered via caesarean section and both she and I lived. A hundred years ago, in all likelihood, we would have both died. In today’s modern world, it is a given that every woman deserves a right to a healthy delivery.

What is to be done? What can fix a system that is plagued by neglect and incompetence?

According to IIMMHR, “An effective response requires that we look beyond the delivery of quality health services and embrace the language and norms of human rights. A human rights approach to reducing maternal mortality is a powerful tool for several reasons: 1) It ensures that we can hold governments and others to account for their policies, programs, projects and pledges to reduce maternal mortality; 2) It empowers people to advocate for rights related to maternal health; 3) It offers civil society a means by which to engage in a constructive dialogue with governments around their responsibility to ensure safe pregnancy and childbirth; and 4) It places women’s equality and well-being at the center of governmental responses to reproductive rights and health issues. A human rights approach to maternal health plays a critical role in legitimizing, promoting and enforcing norms, policies and programs that seek to reduce maternal mortality.”

It is heartbreaking when the hopes and dreams of expectant parents are dashed into pieces when the mother – and possibly the child – dies during delivery when it could have been prevented. More to the point, it is a moral wrong and the inaction of the government to fix this situation years ago is simply indefensible.

In closing, some final words from IIMMHR, “Experience in various countries over the past decades has demonstrated that maternal mortality can be reduced significantly and sustainable when it becomes a political priority.

Even though dying of an easily preventable cause is a human rights violation—as much as extrajudicial executions, torture, and arbitrary detentions are—the connection between maternal mortality and human rights has not been widely recognized. The time is ripe for an effort that confronts this unacceptable situation.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Selling low self-esteem to women

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 15 December 2010)

There are a million reasons for women to feel bad about themselves. It seems a woman never measures up to any number of measuring sticks when it comes to cooking, cleaning, style, beauty, intelligence, motherhood, etc. Women are subject to a constant bombardment of advertisements that tell them how they can improve themselves – because, according to the world, women need to be improved.

Why do these ads insist that women do not measure up?

According to “Flattery Will Get an Ad Nowhere,” a December 10 New York Times article,”Apparently, it doesn’t take much to make a girl feel plain. Just looking at an object intended to enhance beauty makes women feel worse about themselves, according to a study from the April 2011 issue of The Journal of Consumer Research.”

In other words, advertisers feel they must create a need. In fashion apparel and shoes, hair products, cosmetics, anti-aging creams and lotions – as well as many other areas – the need is that a woman needs to look better. Therefore, it is necessary to make her feel she is not good enough yet and needs the advertised product to make her better than she is without it.

The article continues, “The study looked at how women responded to an image of something (say, a high-heeled shoe) depicted in an advertisement and as a simple photograph with no advertising context. According to the authors — led by Debra Trampe, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands — advertised products, unlike unadvertised products, affect both whether and how the viewer thinks of herself afterward.

In other words, an image of the high-heeled shoe in a stylish advertisement is likely to trigger a sense of inadequacy.”

In an attempt to satisfy their thirst for money, advertisers spend billions of dollars on making women feel inferior so they will buy a product that is supposed to make them better.

Better than what? As it is, most women will not even leave the house without makeup on their face, because they are not “good enough” without the makeup. Meanwhile, men are just fine the way they are…no makeup, no unnatural and uncomfortable high heels to walk around in all day, no form-fitting or low-cut clothing to put body parts on display.

This is just madness. How can women ever get to a place where they feel good about themselves while every television commercial, every magazine, every music video, screams that they will never measure up? This type of pressure for women to be someone other than who they are is unreasonable and immoral.

The New York Times article said, “According to the study, ‘advertisements displaying beauty-enhancing (rather than problem-solving) products are likely to remind consumers of their own shortcomings.’ This, in turn, makes them view themselves more negatively. The authors quote Christopher Lasch, who back in the 1970s said, ‘modern’ advertising ‘seeks to create needs, not to fulfill them; it generates new anxieties instead of allaying old ones.’”

This is the world in which women live. This is the world in which our daughters are growing up.

Who do these advertisers think they are to believe it is ethical to sell low self-esteem to millions of women just to make money? There are so many other ways to sell their products that would not leave women around the world feeling like they will never be good enough.

I would have to be starved for something to read before I would pick up a fashion magazine. I simply refuse to allow others to decide what I should look like – what shoes I should wear, what clothes I should buy, what make-up looks best on me, whether I need to use anti-aging creams…and even what feminine products I should use. I prefer to be a woman of my own choosing.

When it comes down the bare bones of advertising, ads are crafted to make women feel ugly. Why on earth would I subject myself to such degradation? The truly ironic part of reading this article on the New York Times Website is that right alongside the article was an ad with a nude woman covered only by two baby lions and a Bulgari bag. My reaction to the ad is that I am offended.

I am offended that the advertisers think so little of me that they will put a nude woman on their ad and think it will some how provoke me to buy their product. I want to know the details about the bag. I am also offended because I am aware that the woman in that ad is not even real. She has been ‘photoshopped’ and tweaked to the point that she is not a real woman at all.

However, these types of ads do work many times and until women recognise what is going on – that they are being made to feel ugly and held to unrealistic standards just so advertisers and their clients can make money – these degrading ads will continue. It is time to stop buying products from ads that demean women. It is time to start buying from ads that are informative and attract the customer based on the facts of the product.

Remember this women, it is an insult to you every time an ad makes you feel like you would be a better woman if only you had that product. Don’t respond to the offence by buying that product. It’s time women demand that advertisers find a way to market goods without selling low self-esteem.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why women need self-esteem

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 12 December 2010)

(The following is a combination of my thoughts and excerpts from “Women & Self-Esteem” by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan, a great book I recommend for all women.)

Self-esteem is something probably everyone wants and which everyone definitely needs. We want self-esteem because it increases our chance of finding happiness in life and makes it possible to cope with life’s disappointments and changes. We need self-esteem because nothing is as important to psychological well-being.

Our level of self-esteem affects virtually everything we think, say and do. It affects how we see the world and our place in it. It affects how others in the world see and treat us. It affects the choices we make – choices about what we will do with our lives and with whom we will be involved. It affects our ability to both give and receive love. And it affects our ability to take action to change things that need to be changed.

If a woman has an insufficient amount of self-esteem, she will not be able to act in her own best interest. And if a woman has no self-esteem at all, she will become overwhelmed, immobile and eventually will “give up.” Many women unfortunately have gone through life with a minimum of self-esteem – just enough to enable their survival, but not enough to enable them to live as fully and to be as happy as they might have been.

According to the age-old double standard, high self-esteem is an exclusively male prerogative. In men it is seen as a moral good, and a man who likes and values himself and lets the world know is considered normal, and is said to be demonstrating a healthy self-interest. But a woman who likes and values herself and lets the world know is condemned for being vain, arrogant and conceited.

In fact, if a woman walks by with a confident stride, other females are likely to look at her and say, “Who does she think she is?” instead of being content to see a female with self-confidence. However, if a male walks by with that same confident stride, it is seen as normal, healthy and even attractive.

Many women accept their low self-esteem as a seemingly unalterable fact of life. Many, taught as most women are, that a good woman is humble and self-effacing, go so far as to maintain that there is something noble and virtuous, something appealing and feminine about self-hatred and self-denigration.

Moreover, other than having the capacity to achieve personal happiness, another reason self-esteem is an especially important issue for women is that individual levels of self-esteem also have political implications, affecting our actions and status as a group.

Women in a male-dominated world face many formidable obstacles men do not face. These obstacles are not going to magically disappear. Women must bring them down by standing up against them. Every gain women have made in obtaining greater equality in the workplace, in the eyes of the law, in religious institutions, in the media, in the professions and in the inter-personal sphere, has been at the cost of enormous struggle on the part of individual women working together. Sustaining that sort of struggle, and mounting new struggles, requires that women value themselves.

When one woman suffers the unhappiness of feeling that she is not worth much, nor capable of much either, it is easy to say hers is an individual problem. But when thousands of women suffer from lack of self-worth and have limited views of their capabilities, then what we are talking about is a group problem of enormous political implications. Only by raising ourselves in our own estimation can we bring all women up.

What is self-esteem? Self-esteem is the reputation you have with yourself. On the other hand, self-image is the set of beliefs and images we all have of ourselves.
For example, our self-image can include easily verifiable aspects of ourselves like: I am a woman, I am tall or short, I am a mother, I am poor, etc. And it can include aspects not so easily verifiable, like: I am smart, I am ugly, I am sexy, I am unlovable, I am worthless, I am incompetent. Self-esteem is the measure of how much we like and approve of our self-image.

Women are so hard on themselves because of a distorted view of themselves. Women’s self-esteem is impacted negatively by feelings that we do not measure up to what society expects us to be. I have long struggled with the fact that women are supposed to be compliant and quiet because I am a fighter and opinionated. In fact, I seldom fit into any of the traditional roles set out for women.

I believe every woman struggles like I did – to some extent or another – to fit into that small box society has placed us. But I think it is time we break that box to pieces and redefine ourselves as the women we want to be.

When this happens, when we can find the courage to be the women we want to be, that is when we will start to see healthy female self-esteem – and healthy, happy women.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Every government official should be required to sign the Skeldon Declaration

(Originally published in part in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 08 December 2010)

I cannot help but ponder how many men in positions of authority are wife abusers. This came to mind again last week when Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Shamdeo Persaud, had charges of assault and threatening behaviour against him dismissed after his wife, Romona Persaud, told the court that she no longer wanted to proceed with the matter.

Why did she drop the charges? Was it because of promises of undying love and an end to the abuse? Or was it because of threats of additional violence? Or perhaps it was the fear of what the future holds if she parts ways with her husband? Whatever the reason, I believe with everything in me that she will regret her decision.

Women who believe the abuse will just disappear are fooling themselves. Unless an abusive husband decides to get professional help by way of counselling, the abuse will not stop for the wife. In fact, if a perpetrator of abuse gets away with abuse without so much as a slap on the wrist, he is more likely to believe he can get away with even more abuse the next time.

As we have seen in recent years, there are those in high positions who do, in fact, abuse their wives. I am very close to a survivor of domestic violence inflicted by someone in a very high position. She is a sweet soul with a brilliant mind – and now she uses that brilliance to help others. I simply cannot fathom why anyone would think it morally tolerable to inflict abuse on such a kind and generous heart.

When a man in a position of leadership beats and abuses his wife, it is clear that such a man should not be followed to even the corner store, much less followed on issues of greater import. In fact, in a just society, such a man would be behind bars – not leading any organisation, business or country. Violent and cruel personalities are the scum of society – not the upper crust.

Moreover, if the government truly hopes to see change in the social fabric of the nation in regards to domestic violence, it must – I repeat, it MUST – get rid of wife abusers within it’s own ranks. With the same vehement stance taken against the doctor convicted of sexual offences, Minister of Human Services, Priya Manickchand, and former Health Minister, Gail Teixeira, should also confront the wife abusers in their own party.

How can the government go around the nation expecting men to sign a pledge saying they will not abuse their wives when government leaders themselves abuse their wives? In fact, every single leader in the government (Opposition parties included) should be required to sign the Skeldon Declaration, which promotes non-violent behaviour in relationships.

I have said it before and I repeat it for emphasis today, domestic violence is wrong. It is evil. If a man in a high profile position believes his status and title will give him a free pass to abuse his wife, he should think again. I refuse to keep quiet while women are beat, tortured and murdered.

How many wives of men in high positions have been subjected to domestic violence from their husbands? How many bruises? How many blows? How many loathsome words have been spat into fearful eyes?

The most recent case is chilling. According to a December 2 article in Kaieteur News, “The allegation was that Persaud, on November 30, at Prashad Nagar, assaulted his wife. Another charge alleged that Persaud, on the same day, threatened his wife with a steel chair.” This does not sound like a leader I would follow. The report continued, “Kaieteur News was told that on the day in question, neighbours heard the woman screaming and immediately called the police.”

Kaieteur News also said, “The woman yesterday refused to give evidence against her husband, and the two were both made to pay cost for wasting the court’s time. The matter was then dismissed.” This makes me so sad. Romona was so close to justice, so close to ending the abuse, so close to a happy and safe life.

There is a contradiction in the idea that someone can be a Chief Medical Officer and can also allegedly assault his wife. How can someone who is entrusted with the health of so many inflict harm on a person he is supposed to love and care about?

I applaud the neighbours for doing the right thing and calling the police. I implore them to do the same thing the next time they hear Romona screaming, because even though she did not have the courage to give evidence against her husband this time, maybe next time she will find the courage.

This is what I would say to anyone in an abusive situation, you are not alone. Please know there are others who care about your situation and want to help you live a safe and happy life – like neighbours who will call the police to save you from harm. If you need to talk to someone, call IMRAC at 664-3741 or Kids First Fund at 226-5926 or 226-6231.

I want abused women to know – whether your abuser is president of a country, a taxi driver, a Crime Chief, an accountant or a Chief Medical Officer – you can live a safe and happy life outside of the abuse. I survived domestic violence from my childhood and I know lots of women who have chosen to walk away from abusive husbands and are stronger and happier now because they left.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

My promise to Cheryl, Radica and Champa

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 05 December 2010)

Let me tell you a story, or rather three stories, about young women killed by violence and the crusade of each of their mothers to seek justice for their daughters. Each of these tragic individual cases may seem familiar since the mothers’ work diligently to keep their daughters’ cases at the forefront of our thoughts. However, when taken as a whole, these stories speak of a very disturbing trend.

Story #1: In March of this year, Leeloutie ‘Pinky’ Seeram, a mother of two, was killed when chopped to the back of her head. She also had three fingers on her left hand severed. Her husband did this after he came home drunk one night. It is said that he often abused Pinky, so she lived no easy life. And in the end, her own husband took her life in a drunken rage.

He also chopped Pinky’s mother, Lata ‘Cheryl’ Inderdeo, 52, to her right shoulder and left palm as she tried to help her daughter. Cheryl survived the attack, but has a long scar down her right arm and across her left hand. The children from the marriage, who grew up seeing their father beat their mother, now have no mother at all. The husband is on the run.

Story #2: On September 10, a young Sheema Mangar, 21 years old, was just getting off work at Demerara Bank Ltd. when she was robbed of her BlackBerry phone around 18:40 hrs, while awaiting transportation near Camp Street and North Road. According to a Kaieteur News report, an eyewitness said the thief got into a car and “Mangar ran towards the car while shouting ‘thief, thief.’ She reportedly then stood in front of the car while demanding that the thief return the phone. But according to the eyewitness, the occupant of the car responded by running over Mangar and dragging her to Church Street.”

Sheema’s mother, Radica Thakoor, said when she arrived at the hospital, her daughter was “hollering in pain,” but appeared to recognise their voices. She recalled that there was a large hole near Radica’s left temple. At least one of her arms was broken and her face and limbs were badly bruised. Sheema died the next morning because a thief stole her Blackberry. The robbers, again, remain at large.

Story #3: The night of the Diwali motorcade, 28-year-old Babita Sarjou, the mother of a four-year-old-boy, disappeared after leaving her workplace. She was to take her son to the motorcade with her estranged husband. This same man had allegedly posted nude photos of Babita around her place of work and was due to appear in court over the matter. Another matter in court is the custody of the son. Despite the husband’s vile treatment of Babita that would make him a prime suspect in her disappearance, he is still at large and has custody of the child.

All three of these stories have common threads to tie them together. For example, these stories are of real women who suffered violence – two are dead and the last one has been missing for a month. However, another notable common thread is that all three of these young women have mothers who are willing to continue to fight for justice for their daughters. I have spoken with each of these mothers, Cheryl Inderdeo (Pinky’s mom), Radica Thakoor (Sheema’s mom) and Champa Seonarine (Babita’s mom) and I am struck by how the system has utterly failed each of them.

If women can be discarded so easily by men; if they can be beaten, murdered and kidnapped and then forgotten by those who are supposed to protect them – then the laws and the constitution are of no use whatsoever for women. If justice is a right afforded to all citizens, both male and female, then why are these mothers still fighting for justice when it should have been a simple matter of fact in the first place?

These are just the cases I know about personally from talking with the mothers. There are other cases, too – like that of Victorine Ifill. According to a November 28 Stabroek News report, on September 11, 2009, Ifill’s Sophia two-storey concrete house was totally destroyed by fire when Ifill’s ex-husband “had allegedly kicked down the door to the house and set it on fire, using cooking gas and kerosene. In a matter of minutes, the house and all of Ifill’s possessions were gone…Stanley Griffith also called Denis Griffith was in hiding for over a year since allegedly setting fire to Ifill’s Sophia home in September 2009. Police managed to apprehend him earlier this month, but they released him on bail saying that further advice was needed.”

How many more women are victimised by violence and subsequently victimised by the justice system? How much longer until women are regarded as essential citizens instead of trivial cases that can be tossed aside and forgotten about? To say this situation is untenable is paltry. In fact, it is actually an affront to all women.

I do not know if Babita is still alive, but I do know that if she cannot show at her court dates because she has been kidnapped, the case against her husband for posting nude photos of her will be dismissed. I also know Pinky’s murderer is walking around free to enjoy his life after he brutally murdered his wife and assaulted his mother-in-law. And I know that the man who ran over and dragged Sheema Mangar’s body down the street is walking around scot-free.

In speaking with these mothers, I have no doubt they will not rest until justice has been served. As a mother myself, I can identify and know I would do exactly the same. As such, I stand with these mothers and vow the same commitment to see justice for their daughters. That is a promise.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Empowering Myself: Expression of a Woman

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 01 December 2010)

(I have been reading this essay at the domestic violence workshops over the past weekend as I talked on self-esteem. It seemed to be an inspiration to many women, so I am now sharing it with all women. I wrote this in July 2001 when I finally decided to give myself permission to be the real woman I am inside and it is my hope that this essay inspires other women to do the same.)

I have long tried to be the person society expected me to be. The problem with this notion is that I need to be more than what others expect of me. I have so much to offer and yet feel that I must somehow squeeze into a mould that doesn’t hold me.

Having succumbed to the social expectations of a stunted generation, I spent many years playing with ideas of true freedom in my head. I have longed to break that mould, yet feared the consequences should I make such a drastic move. I have settled for second or third or fourth best for myself, believing I was allotted no more in life than what I had been handed.

I felt to attempt anything more would prove my vanity and bring to light the arrogance inside me. However, this vanity and arrogance is no less honourable than the self-confidence of a man who is able to demonstrate his full potential without the walls of minimal societal expectation boxing him in.

I am more than a woman, more than a wife, more than a mother. I have an insatiable need to know and to learn and to do and to be; and those needs never seem to be quenched.

I know that I am more than I have been allowed to be. Why would I let someone else to dictate what I am or am not allowed to be in life? I know that I am more than I have allowed myself to be. Why would I hold myself back for the sake of conforming to archaic ideas?

I am more than my mother said that I am and more than my primary school teacher said that I am. I am more than an object to be admired or acquired. I am more than the passive women of my generation who silently accept their assigned lot in life and then attempt to perpetually entertain themselves in hopes of forgetting their plight.

I am more than those who blindly submit to notions passed down by a generation of weak women who sold their souls to shallow men for the sake of feeling accepted by strong arms, but only received bitterness as a payment for their precious goods.
There are so many women whose true potential will never be fully realised because of the low expectations placed on them. These low expectations are the standard by which many women live their lives. It is perfectly normal for them to fall in line and perform that role, which does not allow for much deviation.

Women are treated as if they have little or no intelligence and are expected to be happy with the ordinary and the mundane while the men take on the big bad world. But what about women who have the strength, intelligence and audacity to take on the world?

I have not been honest. I have not been honest with myself or with those who love me. I need more. I am more. No one else can answer the questions that plagued my mind because all of their expectations of me are still too low. No one else can fulfil my need to explore and learn.

I have so much energy and so many ideas that are going to waste in a land long forgotten because I have not had the courage to state them or the avenue by which to share them. I have been made to feel that a husband and family should be my life and that it is socially and morally wrong to want or need anything more. Yet I cannot see how it could be wrong to want more when I have an instinctive drive to desperately desire more.

Therefore, I will no longer succumb to the stereotypical role of a woman just to appease the ego of a few men who cannot see past their own selfish ambitions long enough to truly appreciate the potential of another human being. I will no longer slouch in my posture or act ignorant of an idea in order to stroke the insecurities of men or women who feel the need to still conform to the sexist views of generations past.

I will not act as though I am uninformed and have no opinion in matters that are important in life for the sake of complying with the notions of a few ignorant souls. I will never again open the doors of innocent naivety to allow myself to be victimised at the hands of someone who desires to use me for their own selfish motives. I will never again be ‘put in my place’ by the likes of a man who cannot handle a woman with a thinking brain.

Instead, I will allow myself to think and to be and to do. I will step beyond the door that has been shutting me in and break into the world that is waiting to be explored and understood. I will be bold and will allow my beautiful self-confidence to shine through.

I will walk with my head held high and with purpose in my step. I will take on tasks that are beyond me in order to push myself further than I thought I could go. I will no longer hide my intelligence, but instead put it on proud display for all to see. I will be all that I am. No, I am all that I am. I am.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Teach our good girls to be bad girls, too

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 28 November 2010)

I once heard a woman say she allows her daughter to explore the not-so-nice aspects of her personality. With wisdom, the mother said it is important to have that stronger side of us – as well as the nice, well-mannered side – since the world can be cruel at times.

Although I never thought to teach my girls this lesson in an overt manner, I could not agree with this lady more. There are times in life when we need to have a thicker skin and be a little stronger, because if we were anything less, life would chew us up and spit us out.

As women, we have been told our entire lives that we are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” So we try to live up to that notion and in the process we can get walked all over. Some women even submit to abusive relationships because they have never been taught to stand up for themselves.

If we teach our daughters to always play nice, what happens when they are confronted with real life? Real life can be so tough sometimes and it takes a tough woman to handle tough times. As parents we go to great lengths to teach our daughters to be good little girls, but does that instruction alone give them what they need to function effectively in today’s world?

One of the reasons some women find it so hard to cope with life is because they have not been taught how to do it effectively. We are taught how to deal with a fantasy life of sugary situations and sheltered from what the world is really like.
Meanwhile, boys are taught to be well-mannered, but they are also encouraged to explore the other side of their personality too – the not-so-nice side. In a world where men still rule the roost in most business and political environments, it puts our daughters at a severe disadvantage to force them to be sweet when we all know business and politics can be cutthroat.

Parents go out of their way to “toughen up” their boys, but the girls are not supposed to get dirty or raise their voice. They are not taught to fight for what they want, which is what a person has to do in life sometimes. I allowed my daughters to explore the not-so-nice parts of their personalities, but I have always brought them back to a place of caring about others too.

Once when my oldest daughter was about 13 years old and still very sweet and innocent, she developed a friendship with another girl who was not so sweet and innocent. The girl would lie, spread rumours and even yell at other people. My daughter had no idea how to deal with someone like this.

She came home crying one day because she was so hurt and so mad over the situation. I told my daughter that she should not back down from a mean person. I told her to stand up to the girl and see what happens. The mean girl backed down and everyone was deeply grateful to my daughter for letting the girl know she would not get away with her nastiness.

Afterwards, I reminded my daughter that it was important to mend the rifts and to try and maintain a civil relationship since they attended school together and had to interact on a daily basis. Balance is key in teaching our daughters how to deal with real life, just as it is when bringing up boys.

Maybe it is time for us to teach our daughters to be both naughty and nice – after all that is what real life will be like when we are not there to protect them from it anymore. There are some scoundrels in every community who love to prey on weak women, which is exactly why we need to raise strong women.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported, “Unipolar depression, predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, is twice as common in women.” If we gave our daughters all the available tools to effectively deal with life, perhaps this depression rate would decrease.

The more strong women there are in society, the fewer victims there will be for scoundrels. None of us want our daughters to be a scoundrel’s victim, a mean person’s doormat, or a submissive wife to an abuser.

So the next time your daughter fights for a toy that someone just took from her, let her explore that part of her personality. It just might teach her to fight for something more important later on in life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Let the healing process begin

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 24 November 2010)

I have written much on the issue of domestic violence in the last couple of months. It is a topic that needed to be highlighted because of the direct impact it is having on society. Tomorrow is the big event “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” at the Georgetown Cricket Club (GCC) ground, Bourda, and it feels to me like the start of a new era.

I walked in the Rights of the Child (ROC) march last Sunday and as we chanted our way from Bank of Guyana to the seawall, it felt as if there has been a definite shift in the way people are viewing domestic violence. And it felt good. It feels like the healing is about to begin.

We chanted through the streets, “Real men don’t hit!” and “Stop the abuse, there’s no excuse!” There was a solidarity in that group, comprised of both women and men, that was extraordinarily powerful. It was a large group and it was encouraging to see so many young people taking a stand for this cause. It was obvious that they are in this fight to see a safer life for themselves and their neighbours, too.

To be sure, healing is needed. Years of domestic abuse and victimisation have altered the psyche of the people as a whole so that even if a person has not been exposed directly to domestic abuse, the indirect results will still touch that person. Yes, healing needs to happen, not just for individual victims and survivors, but for the entire country as well.

Imagine the change that can be brought about when so many people in the country start to heal and are able to shed the anger, fear, vengeance and intimidation. Once upon a time, I was told this struggle against domestic violence was in vain. I was told this is the way it is and it will not change. Now I am being told there is hope for change.

One of the questions I am often asked is how does one define “domestic violence.” As such, I am restating the following definition from a previous column.
I have gone to Wikipedia to help define domestic violence. Wikipedia is not an authority on domestic violence either, but the following definition will provide the reader with a description adequate enough to help determine whether she/he is a victim of domestic violence.

Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse or intimate partner violence, can be broadly defined as a pattern of abusive behaviours by one or both partners in an intimate relationship such as marriage, dating, family, friends or cohabitation. Domestic violence has many forms including physical aggression (hitting, kicking, biting, shoving, restraining, slapping, throwing objects), or threats thereof; sexual abuse; emotional abuse; controlling or domineering; intimidation; stalking; passive/covert abuse (e.g., neglect); and economic deprivation.

Physical abuse is abuse involving contact intended to cause feelings of intimidation, pain, injury, or other physical suffering or bodily harm. Physical abuse includes hitting, slapping, punching, choking, pushing, and other types of contact that result in physical injury to the victim. Physical abuse can also include behaviours such as denying the victim of medical care when needed, depriving the victim of sleep or other functions necessary to live, or forcing the victim to engage in drug/alcohol use against his/her will.

Sexual abuse is any situation in which force is used to obtain participation in unwanted, unsafe, or degrading sexual activity.

Emotional abuse (also called psychological abuse or mental abuse) can include humiliating the victim privately or publicly, controlling what the victim can and cannot do, withholding information from the victim, deliberately doing something to make the victim feel diminished or embarrassed, isolating the victim from friends and family, implicitly blackmailing the victim by harming others when the victim expresses independence or happiness, or denying the victim access to money or other basic resources and necessities. Emotional/verbal abuse is defined as any behaviour that threatens, intimidates, undermines the victim’s self-worth or self-esteem, or controls the victim’s freedom.

Verbal abuse is a form of abusive behaviour involving the use of language. Abusers may ignore, ridicule, disrespect, and criticize others consistently; manipulate words; purposefully humiliate; falsely accuse; manipulate people to submit to undesirable behaviour; make others feel unwanted and unloved; threaten economically; place the blame and cause of the abuse on others; isolate victims from support systems; harass; demonstrate Jekyll and Hyde behaviours, either in terms of sudden rages or behavioural changes, or where there is a very different “face” shown to the outside world vs. with victim.

Economic abuse is when the abuser has control over the victim’s money and other economic resources. In its extreme (and usual) form, this involves putting the victim on a strict “allowance,” withholding money at will and forcing the victim to beg for the money until the abuser gives them some money. It is common for the victim to receive less money as the abuse continues. This also includes (but is not limited to) preventing the victim from finishing education or obtaining employment, or intentionally squandering or misusing communal resources.

If you read any portion of this passage defining domestic abuse and now recognize you are being abused, then it is time to start making some healthy choices concerning your physical and emotional well-being. Stop using excuses to diminish the reality of the abuse, like “He only hits me when he’s drunk,” or “I made him mad and deserved it,” or “He just had a hard day,” or whatever rationale you attempt to try to justify the abuse.

Come to the rally tomorrow and be a part of history as Guyana takes a stand together in unity against domestic violence. It is my hope that we can fill the renowned cricket ground with as many voices as possible to Break the Silence and Say No to Violence.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

You are not alone

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 21 November 2010)

One of the most distressing aspects about domestic violence is how isolated victims can feel from the rest of the world. Even if there are family and friends who love and care about the victim, she may still feel there is no one on earth who understands what she is going through, especially if no one steps up to intervene on her behalf.

For example, after I recently wrote about my own experience of domestic violence at the hands of my mother, I received an email from a reader saying, “I have just read your column…and it has opened up old wounds. I am currently in tears because I lived my own hell that I never thought any other child experienced at the hand of a mother.”

Living in an abusive relationship is a lonely life. There are threats of more violence if the abuse is spoken about to others, yet even when the silence is not broken, the violence continues. It is a lose/lose situation and the silence only allows the violence to continue.

When someone says that domestic violence is a “private matter,” they are completely and utterly wrong. This reckless statement is intended to absolve the speaker of responsibility to help the person being abused and to hold the abuser accountable. Moreover, dismissing domestic abuse as a “private matter” keeps the victim in her prison of silence. No leader should EVER say domestic violence is a “private matter.”
If there is one reason above all others that I am a part of the “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” event this Thursday at the Georgetown Cricket Club Ground, Bourda, it is because I know what it is like to suffer in silence. I know what it is like to feel isolated from the rest of the world in my own little hell and to believe there is no one else who can or will raise a finger to help me.

How many women suffer in silent torment today in Guyana? Hundreds? Thousands? Even if it is just one (though we know it is far more), that is one too many. Life is too short to spend even one day being subjected to blows, covering up the bruises, listening to the venomous words or being beaten down emotionally by psychological abuse.

We never know how many more days we have left to spend on this earth, let us not waste even one precious day in the arms of an abuser.

If you are a victim of domestic abuse, come to the “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” event on Thursday and see that you are not alone. There will be others to stand with you. I will be there to stand with you. If you are a survivor of domestic abuse, come and find support and healing. If you know someone who is being abused, offer to bring that person to this event as a way of taking a stand against the evil of domestic violence.

If you are neither a victim nor a survivor, nor do you know anyone who is a victim or survivor, it is important that you come to this event, too. The only way to initiate real change – the only way to stop seeing headlines of women murdered – is for every single person of excellent heart to take a stand against domestic violence.
I have already had many people give verbal commitments to be in attendance. I appreciate this since I have not asked these friends to come; they are coming to support this cause because they know just how important it is to stop the maiming and killing.

I have been writing about domestic violence since the start of my column in 2005 and yet today the situation is worse than ever. Multiple times a week there are headlines with women who die horrible deaths. This past week a 62-year-old woman was hammered to death by her own son. The time for idle talk is long past. It is time for action now.

This Thursday, the day of the big event, is the Thanksgiving Holiday in the US, a day where families gather, feast and spend the day together in thankfulness for all they have.

I have spent every single year of my life with family on Thanksgiving, but this year, I chose to spend it in here in Guyana so I can do my part to find a way to curb the violence.

Thursday is also International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In other words, when Guyana stands together at the “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” event – we are not alone – there will be others around the world standing in solidarity with us.

We will join our voices with brothers and sisters around the world to vehemently reject violence against women.

We cannot bring back the ones we have lost to domestic violence over the years, but we can take a stand together this week to stop the onslaught against women. Please make your commitment to come to “Break the Silence, Say No to Violence” on Thursday. Bring your best friend – bring all of your friends. Bring your family members. Bring everyone – and let us do this together.

It is time to do more than just say, “We have to stop the killing.” It is time to put our words into actions. Come stand with the victims and survivors this Thursday. Look them in the eyes and tell them, “You are not alone.”

Columnist’s Note: If you have a mother, daughter, sister or someone you know who has been killed this year by domestic violence, we would like to honour her at the rally on Thursday. Send me an email so we can include her.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Well-behaved women?

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 17 November 2010)

There is a certain etiquette little girls are taught from young and they take these lessons into adulthood. For example, well-behaved women do what they are told, regardless of what they truly want to do.

Well-behaved women know to keep their mouths shut on issues of politics and other important matters that men have long managed. Well-behaved women cook dinner every day, clean the house, raise the children and are waiting at the door with a kiss when their husband comes home – not because she wants to do these things, but because society has told her that she must do these things or she is not a good woman.

For the woman who does want to be what society defines as a good woman, more power to you. But there are so many women who do not want this life and feel trapped, because this is what society still expects from them. In these women, there is potential wasted and intellect stifled. Life as one of these women is so unfulfilling.

However, the most dangerous social standard imposed on women is the one that says she must allow the man in her life to abuse her if he so desires. She is to take the blows without crying out for help. She must listen to the verbal assassinations without expecting words of love. She must resign herself to the torture of her abuser without whispering a word of dissent lest she disgrace the man.

The woman also remains silent about the abuse she receives because it will embarrass her. You see, social tradition also says that if a man beats a woman, it must be because she did something to provoke it. She was not good enough somehow. Not a good enough cook, not a good enough maid, not a good enough wife – not a good enough human.

Let’s tie this all together to get a realistic look at the world in which so many women live. Social tradition not only imposes impossibly restrictive lives on women, but in this diminutive world she is also tortured physically, verbally and emotionally – and is then too ashamed to ask for help because all of it must be her fault.

That this type of social ill still exists in 2010 is intolerable. That as a human race, half of our species is still subjected to such a deplorable quality of life is indefensible. That so many vital resources are lost because women are not allowed to reach their fullest potential is self-destructive.

I know there are some who get upset when I talk about freeing women from this unendurable lifestyle. Why mess with traditions that have worked so well for millennia? I mess with these traditions because they do not work. These traditions have enslaved and tortured half of the human population for too long and it is time for them to be obsolete.

Just because a tradition has existed for thousands of years does not make that tradition a just or good practice. Humans have long followed practices that are detrimental to the species, such as slavery, wars, human sacrifice, mass deforestation and many more. It is my opinion that the subjection of women for countless centuries is the most injurious tradition the human race has ever practiced.

My all-time favourite quote is, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” I like this quote for several reasons. Firstly, it looks convention right in the face and dismisses it. Secondly, it states an important truth that women should know, because if a woman remains locked up in the small world forced upon her by patriarchy, she would rarely be able to “make history.”

Another reason I like this quote is because it challenges me to learn more, to be more and to do more. It also reminds me that I am not alone in my “misbehaving” ways since there are many, many women who have made history and are still making history even today. If it is behaving badly to ignore suffocating traditions, then so be it. I would rather die knowing I reached my fullest potential in life than to curtsy to archaic customs simply to appease some small, egotistical minds.

Another of my favourite quotes is, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life.” Women are so full of guilt all of the time. We feel guilty when the house is not clean, when the laundry is not done, if the dinner is not cooked, if we are not at the house when our teenagers get home from school. There is so much guilt because there are so many responsibilities – more than what one person should have to bear. And no woman should have to bear all these alone, regardless of what social standards say.

This quote allows me to disregard that guilt and focus on more important things than folding laundry or chopping onions. The house gets clean eventually, if not by me then by others who live in the house – and my potential is realised and I find fulfilment in ways that washing dishes will never give me.

Are women behaving badly when they want to push themselves intellectually and otherwise? No one would ever say such a thing about a man. Yet that guilt creeps up again and insists that such desires are not noble, but instead selfish. Nonsense!

Next week, on November 25, there is going to be a rally at the Georgetown Cricket Club Ground, Bourda, to support survivors and victims of domestic violence. It is being held on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to make a statement that regardless of what social tradition mandates, we will gather on that day to “Break the Silence and Say No to Violence”.

On this day, we make a stand together in unity against the violence. This is one archaic social practice that is on its way out the door.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When you attack Freddie, you attack us all

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 14 November 2010)

Yes, I was a bit more than just tickled when I saw that straight line that stopped exactly along my colleague’s fence. I laughed out loud, examined the photo some more, laughed some more and continued this process for another 10 or 15 minutes. Poor Sweet and Sensitive Freddie Kissoon.

The harsh reality, though, is that this situation is no laughing matter. The reason I laughed so much is because no one in their right mind can look at the straight line those stark photos showing Freddie’s uncut canal, after his neighbours had all been nicely cut, and say this was not intentional. If ever there was a show of someone higher up being unhappy at Freddie, this was as obvious as it can get.

Moreover, this untoward incident certainly makes it seem all the more suspicious that the attack on Freddie earlier this year also originated from higher up. And why? Because Freddie speaks his mind when he finds governmental actions to be wrong?

If America decided not to plough the snow away from in front of the houses of critical media correspondents, no one would ever be able to drive in the winter months because there are so very many critics. In Guyana, there is Freddie in the newspaper daily giving his opinion on the state of the country. Even though he has a daily column, all his columns in a year would not add up to the number of critical media reports in America in one day.

Yes, this is another barefaced attack on the freedom of press. From where ever it originated, the intent was blatantly obvious, the person who gave the original order to pass over Freddie Kissoon’s house while cleaning the canal wanted to send a message to a member of the media that he/she was not happy with what Freddie has to say.

The bigger statement is this; this is what will happen to anyone else who does what Freddie is doing. I have been focusing on women’s issues lately, especially domestic violence, because this is a topic that must be addressed to make life better for half of the world’s population. However, I cannot stay silent when freedom of the press is attacked.

It is for freedom of the press that I started writing this column in the first place. Squelching the freedom of the press goes against the very nature of democracy. Democracy demands that the press be able to operate openly and freely without censorship or interference by the government. It is quite obvious that Freddie was censored this week and for that I must speak up.

I simply do not understand why it is so difficult to allow this one man to speak his mind. It is not as if there are thousands of publically dissenting voices in Guyana. There are not even hundreds or dozens. There is Freddie and perhaps a handful of others, like Mark Benschop. Mark sometimes posts on his Facebook page that he fears a physical attack. I do not know how realistic this is because I do not live in Guyana, but he fears it nonetheless.

Here is a potent truth that some in power fail to understand. This truth surpasses all cultural divides and stands true throughout time. The more freedom of press is attacked, the more people who will stand up to defend it. If a Freddie Kissoon meets his end in any other way than a natural one, there will be five who will rise to take his place. The same is true for a Mark Benschop. I do not always agree with what these men say or how they say it, but I will defend their right to say it to the bitter end.

For example, I was minding my business and trying to help domestic violence victims and survivors, but could not ignore the call to fight when an attack was made against the press. Free speech is an essential to a quality life – as essential as breathing and eating – because when a human is forced to remain silent while feeling oppressed, that is a life not worth living. Free press is the breath and substance of a society. Without a free press in a nation, the people cannot breathe.

Another important question arising from this newest attack on Freddie Kissoon is where is the professionalism of the person who ordered this type of action? This was petty and small-minded, neither qualities of a good leader. Even as a columnist I receive critique from my readers and I must remain open to this analysis to become even better at what I do. This is true of every single person in whatever job they hold. It is an immature person who gets upset at critique and inflicts revenge. Again, not a quality of a good leader.

I stand in solidarity with my Kaieteur News family and vehemently oppose yet another attack on press freedom. When an attack is made on one agent of the press, it is an attack on all of us. If the order to skip the section of canal outside Freddie Kissoon’s home did not originate from within the ranks of the government, then the culprit who gave the order should be fired, as an example of the fact that the government does indeed value press freedom.

If the order instead originated within the government, the outcome should be the same. As a show of goodwill toward the free press of Guyana, the person who ordered the workers to skip Freddie’s yard should be made accountable for his/her actions. After all, hidden in the comical and petty action of whoever made this order, we are talking about an attack on the free press of Guyana – the breath of the nation.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Little girls for sex toys?

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 11 November 2010)

I recently posed this question on my Facebook page: It is my opinion that men who seek relations with young girls actually just want the sex without the rest of what comes with a grown woman like a thinking mind, common sense and a full knowledge of the respect due to a female. In most cases, when the young girl grows up and starts thinking for herself, she is cast aside, too. What do you think about this creepy phenomenon?

I was more than a bit surprised when there were some – male and female – who defended this paedophilic behaviour. I’m going to be brutally honest and say that if any stinky old man touched one of my daughters at such a young age, my fury would explode to the point that the world would think Armageddon had begun. There’s no way that sick pervert would escape justice.

Which brings me to what I really want to talk about in this column; mothers who allow stepfathers and boyfriends – or anyone, for that matter – to molest their young daughters. If there is anything in the world more unnatural than a man wanting to have sex with a young girl, it is a mother who will knowingly allow it to happen.

It truly baffles me that society will look at sex between two consenting adults who happen to be of the same gender as unnatural, yet the heinous act of raping a little girl is not viewed with the repulsion it deserves. In fact, all types of homophobic rhetoric is tossed about freely (which is a shame), yet when someone talks of a man who has sex with little girls, it is almost wistfully stated as if to say, “wouldn’t that be nice.”

On my scale of good and bad, 1 – 100, the best of people rating a 100 and the worst of people rating a one, a man who has sex with little girls ranks a big zero in my book. The paedophile is the worst of the worst, the scum of the earth, a person who makes thieves and corrupt politicians look like angels. That any mother could allow such filth to touch her precious daughter is utterly incomprehensible.

I have been told that it is for the sake of money that mothers allow this atrocity. Either she wants that man in her life for the money to live and eat or she allows – or even sends – her daughter to seek out men with whom she can have sex and bring the money back home.

Of all the ways in the world there are to make money, why would any mother choose this loathsome one?

In fact, as pointed out by an acquaintance of mine, if that mother has no qualms with using sex as a means for making a living, then she should be the one to do it – not her little girl. That little girl should be playing with dolls, doing her homework and giggling with other girls her age. Not being inappropriately compromised by a rank old man.

What I find interesting is that this ugly circle starts when fathers with little girls want to abandon their responsibilities at home. Mom is left to care for children without an education, a solid job, or family with the ability to help her. So mom puts her little girl out to be prostituted or she takes a lover to take care of her, but he wants to use the little girl too.

In short, dad reneges on his responsibilities with his little girl to have fun instead, and in the process, another male is having “fun” with his little girl. Now that is one very ugly circle.

Moreover, this circle has become so popular, that it is now common to see young girls dressing to attract older men, in hopes of scoring some money or an escape from poverty.

If those older men had any moral fibre in them at all, they would send those young girls home to do their homework.

That would be the honourable thing to do. Then those little girls would have no reason to be prostituting themselves and could go back to being little girls.
Instead, the men use these girls, maybe for a night, maybe for a few weeks or maybe for a couple years, but when they are done using that girl, she is discarded like so much trash. After all, let us be honest here, men who use little girls or grown women for nothing more than sex, give not a passing thought to the fact that she is a person, a human.

Here we are again – always here again – with the fact that women hold very little value in society. Women can be chased down the street with a pot full of food the man finds unacceptable for dinner or pulled down the street by her hair – both cases that I was told happened in the last month.

Women can be allowed to die in childbirth. My husband’s grandmother died in childbirth in Guyana – and 60 years later this nonsense is still happening. Women can be beat like animals and when one takes her own life because no one else saw how precious it was, everyone finally says, “What a waste.” Yet no one saw her value while she was alive.

At the end of the day, I still cannot comprehend a mother who allows a man to rape her daughter. Isn’t it bad enough that the rest of the world does not value that little girl? But to have her own mother devalue her precious life, too? There are no more words to further communicate my feelings on this matter. My heart aches for those girls.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

An interview with Minister Priya Manickchand on Domestic Violence

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 07 November 2010)

Stella Ramsaroop (SR): Because of its depth of brutality and suffering, the Neesa Gopaul case created an unprecedented outcry from the public. As such, your Ministry, as well as yourself, were under extreme pressure to explain how the system failed Neesa on many levels. What steps have you and your Ministry taken to ensure another Neesa does not fall through the cracks?

Priya Manickchand (PM): Let me first say that I was absolutely encouraged by the public outcry that was made after Neesa’s murder. I felt encouraged and inspired by that outcry as child abuse and abuse of women is so often met with apathy from society in general that that alone sometimes is daunting.
To say that we were pressured into explaining where the system failed suggests that we weren’t willing to so determine in the first place and that does not reflect reality. As soon as I learnt that a child, whose matter had engaged the attention of the Child Care and Protection Agency, had died in such brutal circumstances, I launched an investigation because we just had to know if the system had erred, where and why it erred and how we were going to attempt to prevent this from happening again.
The investigation found that there was negligence on the part of some officers and recommended that disciplinary action be taken, including the dismissal of two officers, one of whom was a very senior person.
There were also recommendations to establish a management information system, house the agency in a separate building where accommodations are more conducive to fulfilling the mandate of the agency and increase the complement of staff.
Serious work has begun in all these areas. I have to note though, that policy-wise everything was in place for something like this not to have happened. Manuals and protocols are written, training on said manuals done and officers at the agency do only child protection work as compared to other offices in the Ministry who do general duties which include so much that their expertise is sometimes stretched.
It is incumbent on officers to do what is required of them, not be lazy or ignorant of laws and/or best practice when dealing with the nation’s children. If this does not happen, if officers do not do what they have sworn to do, what they are paid to do, then we cannot ensure that this does not happen again.
We can minimise the likelihood by tightening on supervision and every effort is being made to do this, but supervisors would still have to rely on the judgment of officers and so, as much as it may not be prudent for me to say it, it would be misleading for me to say that something like this would absolutely never happen again. What we have to do is put in place enough measures to catch a lack of follow-up on a particular matter before it becomes too late.
As you would know this sort of horror obtains in many other countries that have services far more advanced in experience as well as resources than we do. Guyana faces the same challenges those other countries face in their child protective services and while we have far less resources than most of those other countries, we are well on the way to putting those preventive measures in place.

SR: As Guyana transitions from a culture where domestic violence was at the very least a private issue, if not socially acceptable, to a society that now incarcerates abusers, there will be many abusers who should receive professional counselling to help them make the psychological adjustments needed to accept this new reality. Does your ministry offer this type of counselling for abusers?

PM: In 2008, we published a National Policy on Domestic Violence titled “Break the Cycle, Take Control.” It is a five-year policy. We have stated that one of the issues that must be confronted and offered is counselling for perpetrators, but we were clear that in no way should that interfere with the policy to first address the safety of the complainant.
Ever since we published that policy, in collaboration with several NGO’s, we have done very necessary things under the policy. For example, we have expanded Legal Aid services to six (as opposed to 1) regions of Guyana, we have provided funding to ensure a shelter stays open and available to victims of violence and their children, we have published protocols that would be needed by the police, prosecutors, magistrates and social workers, we have trained service providers who are to use those protocols. These are all actions more aimed at assisting the victims and their children.
Presently, if perpetrators request counselling then it is offered, but I have to say no aggressive program has been established as yet to address the needs of the abusers. We are strategically employing resources to address the needs of the many victims. We are about, however, to officially launch a Men’s Affairs Bureau. The establishment of this bureau was born of the recognition that in this whole effort to address violence against women, we were perhaps failing to address a necessary component, the men – who are in most cases, the abusers – thus making our efforts less than holistic.
One of the mandates of this Bureau, which has begun its work, will be to advise on and implement programs that could address the men of our country in issues that are topical and, of course, with a mandate like that, Domestic Violence, its causes, perpetrators, consequences and solutions would have to be addressed. I am aware that this Bureau is already working on partaking actively in a national campaign that the Ministry is about to start. Their focus will be on men.

SR: What are the specific laws in Guyana that protect women who are in abusive relationships?

PM: There are several pieces of legislation that could be utilised by the service providers, the police, social workers, teachers, etc., to protect women in abusive relationships.
The very important law in this regard though is the 1996 Domestic Violence Act. It is an extremely comprehensive piece of legislation that provides for protection in very many forms as well for other types of relief that are needed if a victim is to successfully flee an abusive relationship.
This Act provides for the making of protection orders, occupation orders and tenancy orders. A protection order would ordinarily have in its terms provisions that seek to protect the complainant/victim. A typical order is one that prohibits the respondent/abuser from going to within a stated number of yards of the complainant/victim.
An occupation order allows for a complainant/victim to occupy premises to the exclusion of the respondent/abuser. It matters not who owns the premises, so the premises could be in the sole name of the abuser, given to him by his parents or bought by him and an order could still be made that the victim occupy the premises alone and that the respondent/abuser move out.
A tenancy order allows for the complainant/victim to have a tenancy transferred into her name and for her to become the sole tenant irrespective of who initially was the tenant and for her to occupy to the exclusion of the respondent/abuser. Additionally, the Act provides for maintenance and custody orders. So a court can order that the abuser move out of a home that belongs to him, leave the victim complainant with the children and pay maintenance and/or rent for the victim and children so that she can survive.
Applications to the Court do not have to be made by a lawyer, but lawyers are available through the Legal Aid Clinic in regions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10. The Court is duty bound to consider the application within one week of it being filed. There are still challenges with getting this Act implemented in the way that I believe our lawmakers intended it to be implemented and daily efforts are being made by the Government as well as by many NGOs to ensure this Act is properly implemented. Attitudes of service providers have to be constantly worked on.

SR: It is alarming that women are now killing themselves to escape domestic violence. What would you say to any reader who might be contemplating the same course of action?

PM: Don’t do it! Help can be sought and obtained from any of the many Human Services offices in the regions or from NGOs such as Help and Shelter and the Guyana Legal Aid Clinic. Political Parties, particularly their women’s arms could also provide access to help. The very many police stations all over the country could also offer help to get out of abusive relationships and any or all of these means should be utilised.

SR: Until recently, domestic violence has been viewed as a private matter and though neighbours and family may know and talk about the abuse, seldom would anyone intervene or call for law enforcement. It seems the Neesa Gopaul case has opened the eyes of many to the responsibility each of us has to stop domestic violence. However, for those who might want to revert to traditional social norms and restrain themselves from responding when a neighbour or family member is being abused, how would you persuade them to perform their civic duty?

PM: I am frequently perturbed by the inaction on the parts of family members and neighbours in assisting victims of violence. If for no other reason, everyone has to get involved in this struggle because it directly touches and concerns all. If our women cannot be all that they can be, and if they cannot live to contribute, then we are dooming our entire country to a slower pace of development. And that would directly affect persons who believe they can hold themselves aloof and apart from the violence happening in their neighbour’s house. The neighbours and family members of those women who were killed by their partners would all tell you they never really expected that the abuse would reach those levels, that it would result in murder.
I beg everyone to see every bit of abuse against any woman as one that will lead to death and get involved and call for help to stop another murder of another Guyanese woman. See that as your effort not only to do your human duty by saving a life, but also as your patriotic duty to prevent another of our resources going down the drain wastefully. See that as your duty to your own children because it is if you help to save our resources then your own children will benefit from a country with more resources.
Sometimes I get the impression that persons believe that if they step in and the victim herself doesn’t want them to do so, they would be wasting time. This is not true. Even if the matter does not reach the court much work can be done with the victim to make sure she is safe and to convince her to seek better for herself.

SR: What should a victim of domestic violence do if she/he goes to law enforcement for protection and is turned away without any help?

PM: If this happens, then it should immediately be brought to the attention of another authority. A complaint to any of the offices of the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security would see assistance being offered to that victim.
But I urge all persons, too, to be aware of their rights. Know that the Police must help you when you make a complaint and insist that you get that help. Know the various actions the police may take and advise them if necessary about these actions. Insist that you get help!

SR: Domestic abuse is oft times debilitating for the victim. Although victims may know it is vital to find a way to escape the abuse – fear of the abuser, cultural socialisation and financial circumstances can cause victims to hesitate in finding the help and protection they require. What advice would you give to victims who feel they could be the next one to die at the hands of their abuser?

PM: I know just how hard it is for victims to even see the need to get help and then for them to seek to get that help. It is hard because in almost all these circumstances victims are seeking help from that very person they believe themselves to be in love with and who they expected would look after them and love and protect them for the rest of their lives.
This is never going to be an easy decision, but I say to any victim that you can and should imagine yourself to be the next woman killed by your abusive partner. I am sure many of the women who were killed did not believe their abuse would lead to their death. They didn’t think it would go that far.
Leaving is not going to be easy. It is going to require resolve and strength and a decision to make sacrifices that I know women have in them. Financially things may be harder. Socially there may be some who ridicule you for leaving. Your children may begin to miss their dad. But if you believe you are in danger, you have to get out!
There are many ways you can be protected from your partner, financial help is available and society is learning that this is the only course of action for victims of violence.
The Government stands ready to assist in any way that is needed and I beg all women who believe they could be the next one to die to leave now. Wait not on another night. It may be your last.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Political campaign strategies must address position on domestic violence

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 03 November 2010)

It goes without saying that as the election season gets into full swing, any party that does not have domestic violence at the top of its campaign blueprint should not be considered as a viable choice at the polls. Domestic violence is one of the top national issues that has plagued Guyana for years now and is slowly, but surely, killing off the women of the nation.

If there were a medical disease that killed off as many women in Guyana as domestic violence has in the past decade, there would have long ago been calls from every section of society to find a way to cure the disease that brings so many horrid and painful deaths.

But alas, this is not a medical disease that has been killing the women folk. It is a social disease. This disease steals a woman’s self-confidence and joy, then replaces it with fear and pain. There are physical signs of this disease as well. Bruises, bumps, blood and swelling. Slowly, each day, the disease works itself throughout the woman’s entire body so that all that she knows is the disease and fear, until one day when that disease takes her life.

The silence that has overshadowed this disease is like a dark cloud that never leaves the sky. So many have turned their eyes away from the disease and pretended it was not there. But it is now clear that pretending it does not exist will not make it go away. Just like a medical disease, there must be research to discover what causes it, methods of treatment considered and decided upon, and preventative measures taken to prevent future outbreaks of the disease.

This is where politicians come into the picture. The chosen leaders of a country are where the people turn for help in combating diseases. If Guyana were hit with an outbreak of cholera, the government would need to act swiftly to minimise the loss of life. It is at such times that we see the mettle of a leader. Domestic violence is one issue that will test even the best of leaders, even the most caring of leaders.

As in the last election, I choose to be neutral in my columns on which party I view as best suited to govern the nation for the next five years. However, I can say from the get-go that any party that does not have a comprehensive framework assembled to address domestic violence once in government would never, ever get my support.

Here is a good rule of thumb; if a candidate has a reputation for disregard toward women, is a known wife abuser and/or has been seen around town with young girls – that candidate is no more a fitting leader than a stray dog. The truly sad part is that too many of the current or wannabe leaders fall into one or more of these categories. Keep your eyes open, dear reader, and make wise choices as to who should lead the country.

I have already spoken of how religious leaders who do not stand up against the wickedness of domestic abuse are not representing God here on earth. Likewise, if a political leader does not take a strong stand against this evil, they have no right whatsoever to represent the best interest of the people in a political office. Moreover, if a political leader embraces the evil and is an abuser, he belongs in a prison cell – not a political office.

There has been a recent change in the way society views domestic violence. I believe it is because of the brutality of the Neesa Gopaul case, but whatever the reason, the public is starting to take a stand against this social evil. There are now demands for accountability and justice. This change seems to acknowledge the fact that domestic violence is not a private matter, but a very public issue that requires public intervention to protect the women and children.

However, it is ludicrous to think that any politician that demeans and degrades women cares one iota about protecting women. Sure, some of these politicians may clean up well and put on an angelic face to fool the voters into believing they care, but actions speak louder than words and if these candidates have a reputation for abuse, that should be the voters’ criteria concerning the domestic abuse issue and nothing more.

Because, let’s be honest, if a candidate uses women for sex and then tosses them aside, if he has ever been verbally, mentally or physically abusive to his wife or any other woman, if he runs around with little girls and uses their bodies before they are physically or mentally ready to be used – that candidate will only be able to pretend to be an angel for so long before the real devil shows back up – and we certainly do not want that person to be a leader in the nation when the devil’s horns do reappear.

A politician’s reputation precedes her/him. All the way here in Texas, I hear about all kinds of things – the good and the bad, but mostly the bad, of course. I can only imagine the things I would hear if I lived in Guyana. Guyana is a small nation and it seems everyone knows everyone else’s business. As such, it should not be too difficult to decide which leaders would bring more tragedy to the women folk and which ones would find a way to eradicate domestic violence once and for all.

The nation’s religious leaders have stepped up and taken a strong stance against domestic violence. Now let’s see if the nation’s politicians will do the same during this election season.